Sudden death rugby, there's nothing like it.
Phase work just won out over flair as Harvey Round Motors Ratana are the sixth Tasman Tanning Premier team remaining in the new-look Division 1 after holding off Settler's Honey Ngamatapouri 32-31 inside the Pa on Saturday afternoon.
In a wild game of rugby with nine tries, one red card and three yellows, both sides had been foxing before kickoff in their attempt to remain in the top grade, with the unexpected arrival of some special guests.
It will give no pleasure for the four Senior teams who come up to the new Division 2 to learn that former Steelform Wanganui standout Michael Nabuliwaqe has returned from Fiji since his departure in 2017, scoring tries in each half in concert out wide with his countrymen Jim Seruwalu and Samu Kubunavanua, after being cleared to play only that day.
Try-scoring fullback Sheldon Parkinga-Manhire also returned after publicly being declared unlikely, but Ratana weren't lacking in the stealth department either.
After defaulting the weekend before through a lack of props, the home team had called their banners with a full reserves bench, coach Steelie Koro arranging the attack at first-five, fellow veteran lock Isaac Fonotoe leading from the front in the pack, while former club captain and Wanganui representative Leon Mason came home from Rotorua to make multiple try-saving tackles at fullback in the first half.
Flanker Raymond Lee Mason and prop Kereti Tamou followed those veterans as Ratana caught Ngamatapouri napping early – Koro using the inside channel off the ruck to feed runners with his signature short-balls, as the visitor's have a significant gap in quality from their forwards compared to their backs.
Having the better of territory with a slight tail wind that died away after halftime, just like in their prior victory over Black Bull Liquor Pirates, Ratana had worked their way to a 25-7 advantage, which became 32-12 early in the final quarter.
However they were having to do it with 14 men after second-five Vance Pereka got sent off in the first half following a blatant headbutt on Kubunavanua, which followed on from centre Che Barlow taking the plan to unsettle Seruwalu a little too seriously with a sinbinning for continued provocation to fight.
Without the bench depth of the home side, Ngamatapouri weren't innocent parties either as they played half of the second stanza with 14 men as well – Kubunavanua getting a yellow card for a dangerous tip tackle, as did one of the reserves for a professional foul.
A few beers had, and a new way to score a try discovered
Nonetheless, Ngamatapouri kept the ball alive to score three breath-taking tries from inside their own half in the final 12 minutes, converting two of them as Parkinga-Manhire would come to regret not taking an extra second's breath before making a quick drop kick in front on his own try – striking the upright.
Ratana managed to keep the ball in their forwards inside Ngamatapouri's 22m for the last 90 seconds of play, this time not making a costly turnover to invite another breakout, and book their place in Division 1.
"Held on, just good [enough] back at home," said Koro.
"The biggest challenge now is being competitive in that top six."
Koro said the gap between themselves and the other five teams was still obvious, as when they got so far ahead they should have shut the game down, but instead stopped contending for the ball at the breakdown and played "panic rugby".
Still, he was glad the pre-match plan of using the inside channel, thereby outstripping Ngamatapouri's forwards while staying inside their dangerous backline, had worked so well.
"You identify their forwards weren't pushing out as fast as the other teams were.
"But they're a team in broken play [who are] the best of all the teams."
Ngamatapouri manager Gerald Pearce was "very disappointed" the team had missed their goal of making Division 1 this season.
"One missed kick," he said.
"We couldn't hang onto the ball for long enough.
"Even the first half, three or four [chances] didn't stick, and would've gone somewhere."
It was all Ratana early as after defending Seruwalu's first scamper in their half, the home side kicked their way to better field position and then Koro started with his signature runs to the defensive line followed by short offloads.
Leon Mason had a chance and was just stopped at the corner flag, with the ball recycled to halfback Paddy Ririnui for the try, with winger Matiu Webber converting from touch.
Raymond Lee Mason and Tamou followed Koro's lead, as did Fonotoe and Leon Mason, as another pile-up on the goal line came to No 8 Marius Joseph to force his way over for 14-0.
Barlow's sinbinning when his team were on their own 10m was not wise, as despite the Ratana forwards putting pressure on Ngamatapouri's penalty scrum, Seruwalu took a hit up and then Nabuliwaqe ran to the midfield gap and shrugged tacklers off his shoulders to score.
The Ngamatapouri backs tried to press their overlap but spilled ball at the breakdown and holding on when isolated allowed Ratana to clear through Koro's boot, although just when Barlow was due to return, Pereka had a meltdown when Kubunavanua stopped his promising break and was marched by referee Mark Wilson.
That settled the home side down as the forwards made a signature rolling maul to earn a penalty, with Webber extending their lead to ten points.
Seruwalu tried an ill-advised chip and chase in his own 22m, getting penalised when Ratana winger Kaea Ririnui covered it, and after a 20m drive from the lineout, Ratana got another penalty and this time the lineout ball ricocheted around before falling to Fonotoe to score right on halftime.
Webber stayed down for some time when Ngamatapouri winger Ponti Penicaucau ran over him in the second half, so Koro took over the goal kicking and added one penalty from two long range attempts in front as Ratana were slowing down at 25-7 while Ngamatapouri's Fijian backs remained a threat.
That proved true on a spread in their own 22m as winger Corey Robertson dashed away, with only Barlow running him down, but finding Seruwalu who brushed off his rival and then dashing in at the corner flag.
Ngamatapouri tried the same play but this time when he was tackled, Seruwalu's offload fell straight to Koro, who fed Kaea Ririnui to step the cover tacklers and score, Koro adding drop-kicked extras after the ball fell off the tee.
At 32-12, the game seemed over, especially with Kubunavanua's yellow card and Ratana's forwards driving over the tryline.
But they were held up and then penalised, with Ngamatapouri taking a quick tap to set Penicaucau free to run it back to halfway, and from the ruck ball Nabuliwaqe broke the defensive line and pinned the ears back to outstrip three defenders to score beside the posts.
Two minutes later, another turnover ended up in Penicaucau's hands as he charged down the sideline, and somehow his inside pass around a tackler was collected by Parkinga-Manhire off his boot-laces at full speed to run off for a brilliant try, but the young fullback had a rush of blood with his quick conversion which cannoned off the post.
With Koro subbed, Ratana were feeling the heat as the kickoff went out on the full, with another Penicaucau raid called back for a forward pass to Nabuliwaqe.
The home side then tried to shut the match off with mauls and pick-and-go into Ngamatapouri's half, but the turnover came and Nabuliwaqe hit the line so hard the ball popped out, but he regained it and set up Seruwalu to run under the posts to close the gap to a point.
First-five Josaia Dawai tried another attack in their 22m, but Ratana got it off him at the tackle and kept the ball for a tense final minute of play.
Ratana 32 (P Ririnui, M Joseph, I Fonotoe, K Ririnui tries; M Webber pen, 2 con, S Koro pen, con) bt Ngamatapouri 31 (M Nabuliwaqe 2, J Seruwalu 2, S Parkinga-Manhire tries; Parkinga-Manhire 3 con). HT: 22-7.